TORONTO – Their bodies tired and legs heavy from a brutal stretch of five games in seven nights, the Columbus Blue Jackets and captain Rick Nash found enough energy to keep their playoff push going in the right direction.
They even made it a milestone night for their coach, too. Nash scored late in the first, set up Kristian Huselius’ tying goal in the third and then fired home the shootout winner as the Blue Jackets rallied past the Toronto Maple Leafs 4-3 on Thursday night, giving Ken Hitchcock his 500th career victory.
It all made for a very satisfied Columbus dressing room afterwards.
“When you get points like you do tonight, these are valuable points that are going to make a difference at the end because this was a game where we probably didn’t play our best but we still won,” said Hitchcock.
“It was one of those nights where we had no legs yet we found a way to get two points.”
R.J. Umberger also scored in regulation for the Blue Jackets (30-23-6), who improved to 6-0-1 in their last seven outings despite seeming to have little left in the tank after a 4-3 win over St. Louis on Wednesday.
The win fuelled their drive for the franchise’s first ever post-season berth – they began the day sixth in the super-tight Western Conference – and made Hitchcock just the 13th NHL coach to hit the 500 win plateau. He’s now 500-337-122, tying the legendary Toe Blake in 12th place on the all-time list.
“To help him get his 500th win tonight was definitely a good pat on the back for ourselves,” said rookie sensation Steve Mason, who made 32 saves. “It was a good effort down the stretch.”
Nik Antropov scored twice and Jamal Mayers added the other for the Maple Leafs (21-26-11), who lost for the fourth time in five games. They had a handful of good chances to pot the winner in the third, but Mason kicked out his right leg to stop Jason Blake on a breakaway and then snagged a Mayers shot out of the air with his glove.
“It felt like it was our game in the second period,” said Antropov, “but we weren’t sharp enough in the third.”
Rookie Justin Pogge, making back-to-back starts for first time in his career, played better than he did in Tuesday’s 4-1 loss to Buffalo but had a tough go in the shootout.
Jason Williams claimed to purposely fan on a shot that ended up sliding past Pogge to give Columbus an early lead. Jason Blake tied it but Nash buried a no-doubter to put the pressure on Lee Stempniak, who fired wide to send the Air Canada Centre crowd of 19,179 home disappointed.
“It was a great trick shot,” said Nash. “I wonder how he practises that one, but we’ll take it.”
Leafs coach Ron Wilson wasn’t so sure the move was what Williams planned: “Maybe he did, I don’t know. We should study that move, it’s a great move.”
The Blue Jackets tied things up 3-3 just 1:48 into the third when Huselius took Nash’s pretty pass from behind the net in the slot and snapped it home. That swung the momentum toward Columbus, which spent much of the first 40 minutes sending passes into teammates’ skates and having the puck dribble off their sticks.
“There’s an analogy in war fighting that you fight and you march,” said Hitchcock. “That’s what we’ve had to do, we fight and we march.”
Antropov put the Maple Leafs up 3-2 at 18:03 of the second when he batted his own rebound out of the air past Mason for his 20th. He now has seven goals in his last 10 games since a 16-game goal drought
That came just over four minutes after Mayers tied things up. On the ice with Blake and Dominic Moore, the trio buzzed around the Columbus end until a loose puck came to Blake in the slot. His shot was stopped but Mayers shovelled in the rebound.
Umberger had put the Blue Jackets up 2-1 at 11:42, when he took a pass at the top of the faceoff circle after some nice work by Jakub Voracek along then boards, and snapped a shot over a stunned Pogge’s glove.
“They wanted to come out and barnstorm us early recognizing that this is our fifth game in seven days,” said Blue Jackets forward Michael Peca. “We’ve had a real tough grind lately, the important thing us we’ve found ways to win. We hung in there, hung in there and found ways to get important goals.”
The game was tied 1-1 after the first thanks to a goal by Nash with mere tenths of a second remaining in the period.
Huselius picked up a loose puck in zone as the finals seconds ticked down and slid a pass through the Leafs’ Jeff Finger to Nash, who fired it home just before the horn sounded for his 25th of the year.
“I looked at the clock when we were crossing the blue-line and I think there was 4.5 seconds,” said Nash. “Huselius made a great play, he froze Pogge and it was a great play.”
Antropov opened the scoring on a power play at 12:39, wiring a wrist shot through a screen over Mason’s right shoulder.
Notes: This was just the seventh meeting ever between the teams. The Leafs went 4-0-1-1 through the first six meetings, including a 3-1 win exactly one year earlier. … Boyd Devereaux made his season debut for the Leafs. LW Brad May and G Curtis Joseph were healthy scratches. … RW Derek Dorsett and D Ole-Kristian Tollefsen were scratched for Columbus. … Killing a penalty early in the second, Jackets defenceman Mike Commodore was hit by a point shot in the midsection. He managed to stay on his feet and finish his shift. … Leafs rookie D Luke Schenn dropped the gloves with Jared Boll in the second after the Columbus forward got tangled up with Pogge behind the net.